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Monday, December 7, 2009

A Desire Named Street Car

Build and you will use it seems to be the theory behind Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal's new pet project: streetcars criss-crossing Long Beach. Or perhaps it is her turn to support something because the City Council wasted money, yet again, on a consultant and money spent needs defense.

It seems a few years ago the Long Beach City Council paid $69,000 to a consultant to look into the feasibility of putting street cars into Long Beach. Naturally the feasibility is great, otherwise the $69,000 would have been a waste. We'll just widen a street here, take out parking there, lay track at $25 million per mile, and once built the streetcars will be magical. Businesses will spring up along the tracks, Southern Californians will give up their cars and all of downtown's retail woes will be solved.

When it comes to the pro-streetcar crowd they love to quote development in other cities where streetcar lines have been added, and say things like, "streetcars aren't about transportation they are about development." That's good because like the data being released by the White House on jobs created by the Stimulus Package the numbers released by cities on the development resulting from streetcar lines is just as cooked. Take Portland for instance, the beacon of light for those who want to add a streetcar line to a city near you, or around you if you live in Long Beach. Portland boasts of $2.8 billion in new development because of its streetcar lines being put in; and politicians like Lowenthal are quit to quote the number. Has she bothered to Google the figures? Virtually every new development that has occurred within three blocks of the street car line are tossed into the $2.8 billion dollar number. Including hundreds of millions of dollars spent by Portland State Univeristy, millions spent on parking garages, new office buildings that were in planning stages before the streetcars went in, and on and on.

Also not mentioned are the subsidies spent by Portland, over $1 billion and counting, to sustain the streetcars and other light rail, encourage development and try to sustain the projects. But money is not the problem for Long Beach. Lowenthal says it won't cost Long Beach residents anything from the General Fund, we'll just use Federal dollars--it's not as if we pay Federal taxes so it must be OPM, Other-People's-Money. Not surprising for liberal politicians to consider Federal money "free money" to the recipients, Lowenthal is ready for the Democratic Caucus in Congress. If hundreds of millions of dollars are available to build a street car why is that same money not available to improve our current transportation system? Why not use those funds to improve existing corridors and bus routes? Why not let the Federal government keep the money, lower our taxes and extend credits to small businesses? Because it's not pretty and red and has a bell that goes clang-clang as it creeps down the street.

The purpose of the streetcars is development. Development of downtown Long Beach which has seen hundreds of millions of dollars spent on it behalf over the years, from shiny new upscale condo towers, to funky new lights, to redevelopment funds for businesses, to The Pike and Aquarium. And still Pine, Long Beach Boulevard, Atlantic, Broadway, etc have vacant store fronts and businesses that open and close before their first anniversary. Streetcars are the latest "thing" that will finally get a consistent and significant amount of spending by consumers downtown, supposedly. Streetcar development is dependent on high density housing. Downtown Long Beach has plenty of high density housing, unfortunately most of it in the immediate surrounding areas is high density use in low density buildings.

Until our politicians look at the reality and quit using poli-speech to describe problems the problems will never be addressed. Downtown retail is not a failure because there is no way for people from other parts of the city or region to get there--the 710 terminates downtown, several bus lines from Bixby Knolls to Belmont Shore terminate there, a bridge from the Harbor Freeway and San Pedro terminates there, the Blue Line terminates there, the Passport was created for there. Downtown retail is a failure because it is surrounded by low cost, overcrowded, gang infested housing and neighborhoods. While an upscale residential base has been increasing downtown, it is not enough to sustain any consistent retail development. In the meantime within half to three quarters of a mile of Broadway and Pine are over thousands of low income housing units that are overcrowded and surrounding downtown. A hundred thousand people, probably more, who don't shop downtown, don't eat downtown and cost downtown, and the rest of the city, millions in public safety, health and other services.

City Hall keeps approving and looking to add low cost housing to Long Beach, most of it around the downtown area, then on the next agenda item spend more money on more studies to try to find a way to get retail development downtown to take hold and succeed. Lowenthal's desire for streetcars is just the latest idea to syphon more funds in the future from the General Fund to sink into the downtown retail black hole--and along the way encourage high density development.

Maybe it is time for City Hall and council members from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th to take a look north of the 405 for a change. Take a look at Bixby Knolls and the redevelopment and re-invigoration that has been occurring along Atlantic Avenue. New businesses opening and while struggling are succeeding, despite the economic downturn. Vacant buildings being creatively used for the community. Clean streets. Building owners slowly renovating their facades and interiors. A very vibrant relationship between local businesses and surrounding communities. All without a streetcar and very little investment from the City, especially when compared to the investments made downtown and in other parts of the city. But it was all done with one common factor, Blair Cohn who is the leader of the Bixby Knolls Business Association. He was determined to forge a positive relationship between local businesses and local residents, and it is working. Where is that leadership downtown?

Instead of spending another $500,000 plus next year to continue the study of streetcar feasibility, and another $1 million plus the year after that to continue the process, it would instead behoove Lowenthal and her constituents to promote the use of current public transportation, including the Passport bus line that was created specifically for what Lowenthal wants the streetcars to achieve: bring people downtown. If you want downtown retail to succeed and people from Bixby Knolls, Belmont Heights, El Dorado Park Estates, Los Altos to go downtown and spend money, give them something to go for besides a few restaurants and a 7/11.

In the meantime, let's cut our spending losses on the streetcar idea before the city gets sucked into a spending hole for the future. It we don't Long Beach will have a streetcar nicknamed quagmire.


PRT Strategies said...

There's more on the streetcar issue at

Dennis C Smith said...

Not the link from PRT Strategies is without the html:

Interesting website showing the projects PRT Strategies is pushing for municipalities, including Long Beach, to incorporate elevated transit into their transportation plans, what they term Personal Rapid Transit, PRT.

PRT presented this:

to City Council study session as an alternative to streetcars. While it probably costs a heck of lot more, it appears to be make more sense from a public transportation standpoint. But is anyone else thinking how these cars will look after a couple of thugs have time in them to tag and etch? Will they become targets as they zoom over gangland?

Great concept, while "futuristic" it makes more sense to investigate this than streetcars at first glance.

Thanks for the link PRT Strategies.

PRT Strategies said...

Our vendor community quotes elevated PRT at about $5 millon/mile for a single unidirectional guideway. Some guideways are powered, some are not depending on design, so costs will vary, but they will be visible via competitive bidding processes. The cost quoted in the streetcar study were ridiculously low -- for example, the 2003-04 CenterLine debacle in Orange County came in at $125M/mile. Our research has streetcars in the $65-85M/mile range. Vehicles will likely run about $100k each, and certainly less in volume manufacture. Of course, these costs are entirely dependent on the physical environment, right-of-way costs and participation, or not, of private funding.

Re. vandalism, we envision live and recorded video and audio monitoring of both stations and vehicle interiors, with real time wireless, secure internet connections to a supervisory facility and law enforcement. As most rides will be paid for via a credit/debit card or an issued pass, we'll likely know who the rider is, and be able to show any vandalism as evidence. A few publicized incidents of four- to five-figure fines and restitutions will go a long way to prevent vandalism. Note also that most modern buses are now being delivered with in-vehicle video to record incidents (like slip and fall claims).

Thanks for your comments!

Bob Schilling said...

Streetcars -- "light rail," in today's terms -- have significantly greater capacity than bus lines, and they can, if properly designed, offer fast, comfortable service. Economically, they're more efficient than buses, in that each transit employee can transport more people.

THEY'RE NOT FREE. The capital costs are subsidized with federal money, and there may be some operating funds available -- though with California effectively bankrupt, I wouldn't count on that. Funding can be effectively managed, as the Gold Line construction authority has demonstrated.

There IS evidence that the value of property tends to rise near transit stations, and that rail does this more effectively than buses.

There are a number of things that we need to pay close attention to in thinking about this.

One: Do we have or can we create the corridor density needed to support a streetcar line? We need a fairly high number of boardings per hour (something between 1,000 and 1,500, if I recall correctly) to justify streetcars. That means an unemotional assessment of current transportation systems and the willingness to reduce or eliminate redundant services -- something we frequently don't have.

Two: Can we get the needed land at a reasonable cost? Streetcars need at least some right of way that is theirs alone, so they can operate at higher speeds. We'll also need land for stations and maintenance facilities. Land in our area is dear, even in a real estate depression.

Three: Are we willing to redesign our city to accommodate streetcars? We had them once, and some of our streets are still wide enough to accommodate them. But will the good citizens of First Street be willing to welcome streetcars back to their lovely and ruinously expensive neighborhood? Can we recapture the old Pacific Electric right of way in the North Central part of the city?

Four: Are we willing to pay for this? The initial investment is huge. To be effective, such a system should connect Seal Beach with San Pedro, with north-south routes along the east, central and west sides of the city, presumably connecting with the Blue Line at Wardlow or Willow, and preferably reaching the Metrolink station at Norwalk. Ideally, the system would connect to an Amtrak California station, perhaps at Fullerton -- and yes, I know, that would mean serious money.

Personally, I think it might be worth it, and that the economic activity generated might prove in the long run to be worth the investment. But I don't think we should buy a lot of garden fertilizer about such a system either. It's more like deciding to buy a particularly useful piece of very expensive machinery than it is getting a free lunch. To steal an idea from the old IBM commercial, streecar lines do not constitute Magic Pixie Dust for Long Beach.

Sheryl said...

I'm not sure I see the point of these street cars. The focus seems to be moving people from one part of LB to another to do their shopping. This will hurt my neighborhood a bit, maybe help their neighborhood and won't make any difference to LB as a whole.

If they want to bring more money downtown, they need something that will attract people from outside of LB.